LAAPFF Interview: Producer Thien A. Pham and Actress Thien Nguyen on ‘Actress Wanted’
A lonely janitor hires a struggling actress to reenact ten favorite memories of his dead wife. -IMDb
Where did the idea for the film come from? The premise of the film revolves around a Vietnamese American actress who is having trouble finding work. Was any of that inspired by any of your own experiences?
Thien Nguyen: As a struggling actress myself, when I first read the script and the sides to audition, I really gravitated towards Mai [the character] because I was like, “This is my life right now!” I’m struggling as an artist trying to make ends meet and trying to book jobs and trying to pursue this impractical dream according to Asian American parents. So, definitely!
Thien A. Pham: As a producer, I think one of the motivations for us to make this kind of movie is that it can happen to any kind of ethnic community. We wanted to tell a Vietnamese story that can translate to a lot of other communities as well. The thing about the film is that when people think of Vietnamese Americans, the first thing they think of is pho or war, but when we make these films we want to showcase a different side of us. A different story that doesn’t have much to do with [pho or war]! Yes, we are influenced by it and affected by it but our story is more than just that. That’s one of the motivations to make the story, and that’s why we intentionally set the film in Orange County.
What was the journey like getting from script to screen? Were there any development troubles or problems with funding?
Thien A. Pham: Of course! As independent filmmakers, our struggle is not going to be too different from other independent filmmakers. The script was written a while ago. I think the director had the script for a while–it’s a bit more genre, it’s a little bit bigger in scale. But when he decided to look for funding, he had a hard time. He said, “You know what, let’s scale it down a little bit so that we can have more control over the story and tell the story in our community.” When we scaled it down and tied it more to the background and the culture of our environment where we grew up, the story made a lot more sense. It gave us more identity and we thought that our community could relate a little more to it. We could start to see that we do have good looking people, we do have struggling people, we have doctors and engineers… we also have crazy people! We have more than just what people think Vietnamese people are. That’s the thing about the film–we tried to tie that in a little bit.
From the trailer, Actress Wanted seems like a very sentimental, heartwarming film that suddenly nosedives into horror! How would you categorize the genre of your own film?
Thien Nguyen: I think you get the best of everything! You get that hint of a romance–the sentimental feelings from the janitor [Vu] and him missing and loving his wife so much. But then you also get the jumpy parts that throw you back in your seat a little bit. You also get the realistic part of what it is like to be an Asian American actress in this industry and the lack of representation there is. It’s getting better, but not fast enough.
Thien A. Pham: I think for the story, we looked at the lead role and made him a recluse. He’s a lonely guy and that’s a story you don’t see a lot of in the culture. There’s a lot of us like that! They’re affected a lot by the change in the environment and the culture and their ideal. A lot of things change, and they can do damaging things to a guy. That’s a part of the story that we really wanted to bring out for the audience to see.
In many Asian communities, there’s an emphasis on honoring your ancestors and keeping them in your memories. One particular moment in the trailer I find funny is when someone says “she’s dead, who cares what she thinks?” in regards to Vu’s wife. What are your personal thoughts on memory and family, and how do they relate to the main message of Actress Wanted?
Thien A. Nguyen: Well definitely I feel that in Asian culture we are told to honor our elders and honor our family and please our parents. I think that line is pretty funny because it brings the Americanized twist to it, where growing up–I’m American born–but my ethnic background is Vietnamese, so it’s kind of like that dilution because Isabelle [Linh in the film], is like “Who cares? Who cares what she thinks?” As you progress through the years, that’s kind of what it’s going to be like living in America. Certain values start to change and you build new values.
Thien A. Pham: I think it’s a great line. It’s a good example of the meshing of two generations. It shows that there are people who really want to honor and keep that memory going, but there are generations where they don’t care! Our movie is dealing with that throughout the film where there are two very perspectives thrown in. [Mai] is very young, and her perspective of the country is very different from the lead’s.
Thien Nguyen: For the janitor, he is struggling with coming to America and having to relearn the language and having to assimilate when he was a teacher back in Vietnam. Now he’s coming here and he’s a janitor. There’s a lot of cultural nuances and different perspectives–the Vietnamese American culture versus the Vietnamese coming to America culture.
Thien A. Pham: In our culture, a man is basically the leader of the house. Your words are basically king. But when you’re in the US, things change dramatically. You’re no longer that man, and in some households you’re no longer the breadwinner. I think that’s what our lead is going through, and he carries that throughout the film.
This film has previously already been screened at Viet Film Fest… what has the reaction to the film been like from the Vietnamese American community?
Thien Nguyen: What a great experience that was, first of all! We sold out the theater, and they had to open up another theater for our screening! It was wild and crazy and the reception and support was absolutely phenomenal and humbling. That was a sight to see. It was great being in the theater and hearing people scream! Hearing people say “No! No!” For me, I was so tense too. I heard people jumping and screaming and laughing at the jokes! Minh is such a great screenwriter. You do get comedy in there–you get the best of everything.
Thien A. Pham: I have to give a big shoutout to the Viet Film Fest. Like she said, we sold out a 400 seat theater and had to open a second one. I believe that is also the reason why LAAPFF knew about us. They saw the film there and brought us here. For the reception… I think for this type of film it’s rare to see the community come together for it. They see themselves in it and I think one of the motivations why we want to make these films is that we want our next generation to have an idea that maybe being a doctor or an engineer is not the only way for you to be successful. We want to make these films so that our younger generation can see themselves as directors, producers, writers, or an actress and make it. It’s okay! There’s a path there. When we shot this, the community came together and said, “Hey, this is not something that we see every day.”
Ultimately, what do you hope that your audience will take away from watching the film?
Thien Nguyen: I hope they get to learn about the Vietnamese culture–for sure. The beauty of Orange County and what a community it is. I hope they jump in their seats at the scary parts. I hope that the Asian community feels represented in the sense that they’re seeing somebody that looks like them on-screen. Just a normal Asian girl just going through life on-screen!
Thien A. Pham: Personally, I’d like the audience to see how talented our writer, director, are! It’s important because it’s his vision, and hopefully that comes across. 16 days on set was very short to get it done, but we hope that we translated that to screen the way that he wanted to.
This brief interview was conducted by Li-Wei Chu during Press Day at the 2019 Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival.
Special thanks to Derrek Chow for providing the featured image.